Like it or not, mother bear must use instincts, claws

January 12, 1999|By Susan Reimer

THE DAILY LIFE of a young girl is not all boys and beauty tips, gossip and girlfriends, soccer and school clothes, and nobody knows that better than her mom.

Since the publication of "Reviving Ophelia," by Mary Pipher in 1994, each day brings us a newspaper headline or a television special chronicling how our happy, energetic and self-confident girls are exploited by popular culture, shortchanged by schools, and set adrift by families until they become listless, depressed and self-hating.

Because we were once teen-age girls -- and because that teen-age girl still hides behind the grown-up facade we have constructed for ourselves -- mothers feel a swirling mix of painful recognition and despairing helplessness at each new revelation.

We watch our little girl bubble through the day and we don't want to believe there is, or ever will be, a shadow over her heart.

Then we examine our own hearts and we know it is true. All these years later, so many of us still don't like how we look, what we weigh. So many of us still worry about what others think. The only thing we are certain of is our own inadequacy.

Mothers want a better life for their daughters, but how can we -- we powerless, inadequate mothers -- defeat Madison Avenue, Hollywood, corporate America, the law, HMOs, all the men in the world, the educational system, traitorous girlfriends and the mean boy down the street?

The peril of girlhood is a complex biological and social dynamic, and no one is better suited to write a reflection on it that Barbara Dafoe Whitehead, who established herself as the courageous teller of unpleasant truths on matters of marriage and family in the book "The Divorce Culture" and in an article in Atlantic Monthly titled, "Dan Quayle Was Right."

She has written just such a white paper for the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, a nonpartisan, nonprofit effort with headquarters in Washington. The report grew out of a conference sponsored by the Family Impact Seminar and is co-authored by Theodora Ooms, the executive director of that group.

Called "Goodbye to Girlhood: What's Troubling Girls and What We Can Do About It," this is a first- rate, though sobering, synthesis of the latest research and the best thinking on this topic. The bottom line is: biology, society and culture are prolonging a young girl's passage into womanhood while at the same time making it more perilous.

While the media, schools and other institutions might eventually be bullied into reforms, some of which are suggested in this report, our young girls can't wait for that. They must be able to count on us, their mothers.

And we must be mother bears -- ferocious in our instinct to protect them, sleeplessly vigilant in our supervision of them.

"I think that is a good image for what we are trying to say," Whitehead says in a telephone interview from her home in Massachusetts, where she has raised three teen-agers, two of them daughters.

"They join the peer culture and you feel clueless and helpless. But they need you more than ever. You have to be persistent and consistent. You let them try things, but you always keep them within earshot."

Whitehead says mothers must reclaim the power of parenthood, power that has been eroded by a culture that goes over our heads to appeal to our daughters. While parents "are trying to cultivate their daughters' capacity for work, discipline and deferred gratification, the media and marketplace are courting her appetites, wants and desires," Whitehead writes.

Mothers can buffer and minimize these influences in a thousand little ways, but it takes work and a thick skin to endure the fury of a young girl who isn't allowed to have, do or see the things her friends have, do and see.

"We have to be secure in the knowledge that it is not a permanent rupture," Whitehead says, amid memories of her own daughter's teen years. "We must be the rock and be persistent and not change. The kids are changing and it is reassuring to them for their parents to be predictable, steady, stable, unflinching in their love."

Whitehead also writes that we must also model for our daughters attitudes and behavior that might not come easily to us: healthy eating, a cheerful acceptance of our bodies. And this generation of mothers, many of whom came of age in the sexual revolution, must get back to making moral judgments about sex.

We must also demonstrate what it means to be a faithful friend, a member of a community and a loving partner in marriage so our daughters will learn how to behave in the world -- and what treatment to expect for themselves, the report advises.

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